Battle Royale - Challenging global stereotypes within the constructs of a contemporary Japanese slasher film

By Samara L. Allsop

Samara L Allsop is an Honours Graduate of Film Studies from Monash University (Australia). As well as having a Graduate Certificate ofInformation Management and Systems she has two forthcoming chapters in the series "24 Frames:'Japan & Korea' " (mid 2004) by Wallflower Press.

Kinji Fukasaku's (2002) Battle Royale paints a bleak picture of Japan on the brink of social anarchy. It is the beginning of the new Millennium and the Japanese social system has collapsed, the country is on the verge of a youth specific martial law. Students are boycotting education and attacking those in positions of authority, teachers now run from their students afraid for their lives. In an attempt to control some 80,0000 rampaging students, the government passed the controversial 'Millennium Education Reform Act'. This Act effectively enables a special military task force to nominate a group of students from any year level to participate in a Battle Royale, a deadly game of cat and mouse set on an abandoned island off the coast of Japan. Equipped with items ranging from pot lids to high powered automatic weapons the students must kill their class mates. These students can choose to remain solo or pair up to increase their chances of immediate survival, however in the end there can only be one survivor. The film Battle Royale depicts a game to end all games, literally, and is therefore extremely violent and graphic. However it can also be argued that the film's importance lies not in the presentation of violence, but rather in how it deals with widely held cultural and social stereotypes concerning Japan and Japanese people collectively. The film seeks to shock its audience specifically by challenging reinforced stereotypical and gender biased ideals within the context of the teenage slasher genre.

Fukasaku's Battle Royale (BR) has established itself as a serious cult film, due, in part, to having Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano at the helm. Kitano is regarded as a stoic figure within contemporary Japanese cinema. His penchant for diverse characters have seen him portray people as dissimilar as a Yakuza in his 1989 directorial debut Violent Cop to a man accompanying a child looking for his mother in his feel good film Kikijuro (2000). Within his native Japan, Takeshi Kitano is also an established author and social commentator having published numerous novels and short stories. Worldwide however, he is known mostly for his gangster films, and most admired for playing character's who, for one reason or another, have issues with displaying emotion. Historically Western media (filmic and traditional print media) has succeeded in reinforcing stereotypical notions of culture and identity when dealing with Japan and Japanese cinema. Japanese actors and actresses are often thought of as being emotionally incapacitated due to the rigid traditional social and familial system that defines contemporary Japan. A result of this cliché is that actors and actresses usually end up playing token characters within greater Hollywood and national cinemas, and as such opinions are formed and reinforced simply through repetition of images, scenarios and characters.

As the ideological base of corporate Japan is anti-family it is thus extremely patriarchal. The majority of Japanese stereotypes are firmly entrenched within this corporate sphere. A well known image of a male Japanese character is one whose attire is often limited to business suits and referred to as a Sarariiman or 'Salary Man'. The Sarariiman is usually passive and is represented as unable to make individual decisions. The connotations of this implied inability to act in a decisive and therefore somewhat confrontational manner is meant to firmly anchor the stereotype of the Japanese male as unobtrusive, indecisive and therefore some how less masculine. However it is not only the male Japanese actor that has become a cultural liability, as Japanese women are often placed in weak indecisive gender specific roles such as the silent girlfriend or the doting mother. School children, in particular school girls, are often portrayed as cute characters whose main problems in life stem from the social acceptance or non-acceptance of themselves within the popular social groups at school. In mainstream cinema peer pressure rarely involves the hacking and cutting off of fellow peers limbs in a quest for survival. A central female protagonist and even groups of females are usually presented as socially cohesive, that is they are often the 'fabric of society' and thus usually maintain established codes of behavior and relationships. Susumu Hani's (1963) She and He is a worthy example of illustrating the codified rules for women within Japanese society and certainly illustrates just how easily stereotypes can be formed through repetition of images and scenarios. This example, and the various notions of identity evident within this film, though 40 years old, is still mirrored within recent Japanese and Hollywood cinema.

The addition of cultural caricature's in films can act to further legitimize stereotypes and thus there also appears to be a trend in directly associating Japanese characters with yakaza or other gang related groups if they fail to ascribe to the above ideals. Ridley Scot's (1988) Black Rain illustrates this perfectly, with the Japanese characters portrayed as either yakaza or incompetent police while the Caucasian stars (Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia) are hero's who circumnavigate all the cultural clichés within the film and manage to bring a typically Hollywood ending to the whole saga. Newly released films such as The Wachowski brothers (2003) The Matrix Reloaded also features token Japanese characters-the meek Keymaker and the kung-fu master who was an agent of the omnipresent oracle. It can be argued that the inclusion of both of these characters appeal directly to the two predominant caricatures centering around Japanese actors within cinema. However to argue that Hollywood is the only cinema that seeks to legitimize and act upon such stereotypes would be denying whole national cinema's who have created their own genre's around such stereotypes. The sustained global popularity of the Hong Kong kung-fu genre when compared to the fleeting success of the U.S.A's Chuck Norris films can certainly owe a great deal to the cultural stereotype that 'Asian's are only good at kung-fu' or the idea that a kung-fu film should only have an Asian cast so as to appear 'authentic'-although it must be said that that is not a primary cause of the genre's global consistent popularity (unusual storyline, characters etc all add to the kung-fu allure). While this argument definitely hinges itself upon well established notions of xenophobia it must be acknowledged as being a driving force in how audiences perceive and relate to characters and films.

Herein lies the understated brilliance of Battle Royale. Deleuze argues that cinema is an exploration of consciousness , if this is true then what can be said of Battle Royale with its own internal exploration of the Japanese psyche and its projection into the globalized cinematic world of something obviously so different from what the collective perception is of 'Japanese actors and actresses'? In Battle Royale we find a mirror of contemporary Japanese society and and as such representations of stereotypical and stereotyped characters. The fact that Battle Royale was able to transcend national borders and screen in film festivals and cinema's throughout the world (Netherlands, UK, USA, Australia and Asia), placed it in a unique position to present a new image of contemporary Japan, and to hopefully alter established cultural chauvinist ideals further towards one more representative of contemporary Japan. Furthermore, the widely held belief that the Japanese, as a whole, are collectivists, and cannot think or act individually is effectively challenged in Battle Royale and the film uses this to its advantage, turning widely held notions of behavior and conduct upon its head.

One of the main themes running throughout the film is personal survival and the abandonment of notions of kinship, friendship and all forms of socially learned behavior. The context of a slasher film allows an analysis of such themes and stereotypes without appearing overly righteous and academic. The film Battle Royale seeks to shock the audience by presenting contrasting images of, on the one hand, Japanese teenagers killing each other, while on the other, groups of teenagers attempting to maintain some sort of social structure within the forced anarchy that they are now experiencing. The stereotypical image of the sweet demure Japanese teenage girl that thrives within global cinema is dramatically at odds with the menacing hordes of girls wielding axes, semi-automatic weapons and knives. Thus one could argue that it is not the violence that is immediately shocking, rather it is the presentation and destruction of a stereotype that guides our reaction to what is presented on screen. The opening scenes of the film feature a close up of the previous winner of the game-a little girl about 10 years old holding a teddy bear and covered in blood and gore. She is at once sweet and sickening. The images are deliberately engineered to be as visually shocking as they are psychologically disturbing and thus Battle Royale works this to its advantage. The film's success also lies in its analysis of whether primeval instincts are stronger than forged relationships and emotional attachments, and how the realization of mortality effects learned moral and ethical behavior. However while the characters are realizing how very short their lives are, and whom they can and cannot trust, the audience should be realizing how much they play a part in the transference of cultural stereotypes and gender bias. An excellent example of the use of cultural stereotypes and gender bias in illiciting a response is found with two central female characters.

One important female character is the figure head of the most popular group at school, Mitsuko Souma (played by Kou Shibasaki) while the second is Noriko Nakagawa (played by Aki Maeda). Mitsuko actually takes glee in hunting down her fellow school mates. She hunts those that were within her social group as well as those outside of it, and is masterful at representing herself as anything but angelic when the situation demands it. She lures schoolboys into sexual situations so that she can kill them as well as appealing to the schoolgirls sense of belonging in order to get close enough to them to slice their heads off. While her obvious self imposed entanglement with the game continues (others simply commit suicide because they refuse to kill their classmates), she is still able to maintain her outward composure and even manages to groom herself. The image of a Mitsuko violently grappling with a fellow student with the intention to mutilate her is quite shocking as one deals with the difference between this character and the character of Noriko the quintessential virginal Japanese schoolgirl. Mitsuko is the antithesis of Noriko.

One could argue that the character of Noriko, the model student who manages to uphold her high morals and ethics throughout the film (and of course survives), is used as an example to illustrate the audience's deeply held cultural clichés concerning Japanese women. In the later parts of the film Noriko is even portrayed as a deity by Kitano, featuring in a painting with a halo surrounding her head while her fellow peers lie dead beside her. She represents the sacrificial ideal, the stereotypical image of the young Japanese female. Her very inclusion and survival on the island is an attempt to illustrate that the world has not yet let go of decades of repetitious and stereotypical thoughts and representations of Japan. Noriko's survival was aided by her secret crush Shuya Nanahara (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara), an exemplary example of the idealized well mannered and well behaved male youth. Together, utilizing the help of Shougo Kawada (played by Taro Yamamoro) a survivor from a previous game bent on avenging the death of his girlfriend (traditional themes of honor are quite obvious here) they survive the battle of their lives and escape the island.

Battle Royale attempts to present an alternative representation of the contemporary Japanese identity, one where women can kill each other as easily as their male counterparts, displaying little emotion if none at all. In contrast to Kitano, the characters of Nanahara and Kawada display emotions and as such represents the new Japanese male. In this sense Battle Royale attempts to present the world with a 'new' Japanese identity, a re-packaged and re-evaluated image of an old stereotype while still maintaining the old one for images sake. The characters of Kitano, Kawada and Nanahara can coexist up to a certain point but it is inevitable that one representation must make way for the other. However while it is conceivable that rampaging hordes of Japanese teenagers can kill each other wantonly, it is still unacceptable for such a teenager to triumph over the lot and hence open a whole new chapter of 'good versus evil' narrative. Certain conventions of storytelling must still be maintained. In this sense a parallel can be drawn between the creation of a new Japanese identity and the eventual destruction of the old one in that although Nanahara and Noriko make it off the island they are wanted by the police as killers as thus must remake themselves, and create new identities.

The slasher genre's very foundation of excessive violence and gore was an impetus for such a re-evaluation, for what other genre would afford teenage children the opportunity to perpetually exile each other and those in positions of authority from the face of the earth-in any manner of violence? It is also worthy to draw interest to the fact that the first survivor of the game is a child covered in blood while the second is of a teenager who essentially remains fairly virtuous. Obviously both of the characters had to contend with a great deal of violence, and out maneuvered their peers thus directly challenging the idea of Japanese women as meek and subservient. In addition, the character of Kitano failed to exhibit any sort of significant emotional attachment and was thus terminated, giving rise to the new identity created in his absence by Nanahara. The film Battle Royale deals with cultural and social stereotypes concerning Japan and Japanese people by presenting the audience with alternative images whose shock value lies in the fact that they challenge reinforced stereotypical and gender biased ideals. It's worldwide success points towards the alteration of a persistent image- one significantly wilder and much more contemporary then its predecessor.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002